December 26, 2021
Show of hands: who’s up for another sheet-pan recipe? Just as I thought.
In the roughly two years since the pandemic forced Americans indoors, we have gone from America’s Test Kitchen to Testy America. We still long for comfort, but our methods crave refreshing.
Diet experts warn against using food as a reward, but comfort reading can substitute nicely. A classic fallback is the writing of Laurie Colwin, most of whose books have just been reissued in paperback by Vintage and Harper Perennial.
Colwin’s novels and short stories particularly appealed to women seeking domestic happiness just as second-wave feminism was rewriting the rules. A Colwin heroine was urban, educated, and apt to have what the author described a genius for comfort, even as she marinated in anxiety about love, marriage, and career.
Returning to Colwin’s fiction could surprise fans who tend to associate her with happy endings. The interlinked stories of “Another Marvelous Thing,” for instance, explore an extramarital liaison that feels airless, as opaque in its origins as in its muted end. Billie is working on her dissertation when she meets the much older and professionally accomplished Frank. Because she dislikes cooking, he can never get enough to eat at her place.
Colwin might as well have hung a placard saying “Not me” around Billie’s neck. She herself was so interested in food that she wound up writing essays for Gourmet magazine. Several appear in her books “Home Cooking” and “More Home Cooking,” the latter published shortly before her untimely death, at 48
Blending know-how with memoir, Colwin’s congenial voice helped create a food-writing template that has become standard. Her earliest idea of comfort, she wrote, came from English children’s books, with their images of tea tables set in cozy cottages. Beginning in her 20s, reading cookbooks brought the same pleasures. Their central message: basic needs can be answered in a “really nice, gentle way that makes you feel loved.”
Colwin cheerily accepts her own mistakes, even as she forgives repulsive meals put on by incapable hosts — the answer to which, if all the pizzerias are closed, is a batch of rösti fried up at home. (Colwin met with disaster the first time she attempted this Swiss method of frying potatoes, but it was less scarring than a friend’s encounter with a flaming spinach pie, which had to be stamped out on the floor.)
Rösti reappears, in quiche form, in “Nadiya Bakes.” Its author, Nadiya Hussain, was a sweetheart of “The Great British Baking Show,” and landed her own TV series after winning the competition in season six.
Her cakes may not look easy to make, but they photograph beautifully. (The quiche, she promises, is “super simple.”) Less ambitious cooks might want to try her chewy chocolate-chip cookies, which benefit from a prolonged batter chill and a sprinkling of sea salt.
If baking seems inseparably paired with comfort, how much more broadly do dishes that remind us of home? Fanny Singer’s “Always Home: A Daughter’s Recipes and Stories” describes what it was like to grow up the child of Alice Waters, whose Chez Panisse restaurant helped launch the farm-to-table movement. The fragrance of her mother’s chicken stock became one of Singer’s most elemental memories.
For Claudia Roden, exile from Egypt led to a lifetime of chasing forgotten flavors. Today, she writes, the smell of garlic sizzling with crushed coriander can still transport her to her childhood home.
Along with other Jewish families, Roden’s was expelled during the Suez crisis of 1956. Newly married and settled in England, she longed for the foods she remembered. Because family recipes were guarded like state secrets and rarely written down, she made it her mission to reproduce as many as she could. Her efforts led to a decades-long career in food writing, and a virtually single-handed campaign to introduce Middle Eastern cooking to western palates.
At 85, she has brought forth “Claudia Roden’s Mediterranean: Treasured Recipes from a Lifetime of Travel.” She was particularly inspired, she writes, by warm memories of Alexandria, a cosmopolitan mélange of cultures that to her signified freedom and pleasure.
Simpler than its numerous predecessors, Roden’s latest cookbook distills years of recipe hunting and refinement. Gorgeous photographs, many of regional settings, turn this book into a wonderful escape even for the cooking-averse.
I would be happy to ring in the new year with a bowl of Roden’s egg and lemon chicken soup, as long as I could finish with a slice of her yogurt cake. Others may wish to follow Colwin’s lead: each year, after the hubbub of December had passed, she made the same New Year’s supper: marinated Brussels sprouts and grilled fish. No slog to Times Square for her; in the end, even if it meant cooking for just one, she loved to stay home.